Smack Your Bitch Up: Ecrituring the Feminine in Amy Hesketh’s Sirwiñakuy
October 15, 2010 at 9:53 AM
by Mary Linda DeWitt
Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text with a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history; it is an act of survival.
~Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence
I am getting pissed off. I have no candy. No fucking fizzy crap drink. Or even water, for gawd’s sakes. I suppose I should probably also add here too that I haven’t been to a movie house—or theater—since maybe 2001. I also feel compelled to use the word “theatre” since I was forever traumatized in 1988 for using the term “movie house”; apparently—duh!–the last time someone said “movie house,” Lyndon Johnson was in office. (What my dumb-ass, yet cute crush Darin, who couldn’t stop laughing at me, didn’t know was that, growing up, my closest crew were all Yiddish, and octogenarians…and that my linguistic cache was undoubtedly formed by them and the countless hours I spent as a Pink Lady hopelessly devoted to my Grease LP.)
That night I feel I have to redeem my ass by seeing a “smahrt” movie. I am here to see Sirwiñakuy, written and directed by Amy Hesketh, and, gosh darn it, it bettah be all dat, n smahrt. So. It is 7:49, and I hate the person who insists on shining what seems to be a lighthouse spotlight into the theatre at twenty minute intervals. I also definitely hate the person in the row behind me who just answered their cell phone ten minutes into the movie. Devotional cinema this, clearly, ain’t. (I also use the word “hate” pretty liberally, with all the glee of a 12 year old. In no particular order, I also hate Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, tiny dogs, Bon Jovi fans, chuño, clowns, and people who use rubber bands to tie up their hair.)
Poppers, Pain, Predicates
I really don’t want to do the whole plot summary thing here, so I won’t. I will, however, roughly break it down for you. Sirwiñakuy takes place in present day, La Paz, Bolivia. (If you have to ask where that is, kindly take yourself over to that new fangled contraption called a computer. No offense.) Anyway. Story. Right. It plays out like a fairy tale on poppers, revolving around the relationship between Anouk (Veronica Paintoux), French, a thirty-something NGO spawn, and Luis (Jac Avila), an ennuied, orange sneakered, post-post-middle-aged man. In my world, Luis is a hipster. And where I come from, we spit on hipsters. Lougies. We become acquainted with these two as Anouk gets picked up (or picks up?) by Luis, at a bougie Paceña café. (Thank heavens it’s not Alexander’s!) He approaches her, asking pointedly what she is doing in La Paz. She says she isn’t doing anything. Nothing? She is sooo emo. She looks bored. Hmm. He looks bored. Hmm. I think I’m bored. They then get into a cab together after exchanging like fourteen words. (But who’s counting?) And thus begins their dance of power, control, sex, pain, and pleasure. Then, in what seems like a nanosecond cab ride after their initial acquaintance, she moves in with him. (Of course.) I could be very wrong, but I am pretty sure Anouk doesn’t even know his last name at that point. As a New Yorker, I so want to question the probability of something like this actually happening. But, thank god, or alas, I am not Anouk. Lesson: I really need to stop being so literal. And paranoid. And literal.
Back to the anti-Three’s Company—a good thing!–Anouk seems to become his project of sorts. She gets Eliza Doolitled up, pouts endlessly, and refuses to cut off her locks, or eat with her mouth closed. (And, uhm, was I the only one thinking Pretty Woman here?) Mr. Manners reads like the kind of man who should be buying himself a shiny new pussy magnet convertible or going to an ashram instead of playing Mr. Meanie to Anouk. (Still, that reading, my initial one by the way, could be just a bit simplistic, phallocentric, and/or ageist. But more on that later.)
Luis, the more obvious control freak of the two, appears to have almost adopted lil’ orphan Anouk, Daddy Dearest-ing her, fixing neat little sandwiches for her, climbing into bed with her, and buying her lady-like duds to replace her jeans and tees. Then, the spanking begins. Daddy Dearest is pissed and Good Little Bad Girl is gonna get it. Distracted by the Freudian undertones I felt saturated my reading of these punishments, I was both incredulous and angry that at no time does Anouk really seem to mind. Think I might have even caught her yawning at some point. Then, Daddy Warbucks “has his way” with a handcuffed Anouk. At this point, I am thisfrigginclose to walking out. I even consider asking for a refund for a movie I did not pay to see. It was like This y’all.
Revising the Real
So, just as I am just about to stomp my self-righteous grrrl butt out of the Cinemateca Boliviana—what is up with their new iron maiden seats, by the way?–when I stop long enough to get over myself. How can I sit here and watch this child-like woman get fucked literally and metaphorically by this, this, this… smug, middle- aged, asshole? Could it be that I am not as hard-core as I like to think? But, despite this, my sugar-low induced haze, I feel I owe this movie something. Or maybe I’m just so pissed off at the way it’s making me feel I want to have more evidence to trash talk later. All I know is that Igna Muscio or Gloria Steinem or Maria Galindo must be somewhere, out there—Is there a place for us??– tonight shaking their righteous fingers at me, tsk-ing away. Or maybe they’re planning on jumping my fake feminist ass on my way home tonight. I must probably explain here that I was once part of a collective. Do not roll your eyes…I SEE YOU! Yes, a feminist collective. We were Igna Muscio disciples. As Cunts—we appropriated the word–we pledged to never, ever watch a rape scene or pay to watch a rape scene again. But was this a rape scene? Might it be read as an act of control enacted by the person we (I?) needed to see as Victim? Might it be more complicated, and thus far more unsettling? As I still seek to redefine my own politics in relation to my reaction to Sirwiñakuy, I am reminded of French Feminist Helene Cixous’ notion that “female sexuality, female sexual pleasure, feminine jouissance, is unrepresentable within the phallocentric Symbolic order.” Unrepresentable? I wonder though in how many packages feminine agency can come in? Could it be possible that my politics were in need of a tune-up?
As I sat there, I began to ask myself questions like: Is this prose poetry? Cultural critique? Manifesto? But why did I need an answer is probably the more important question. What is it in me that demanded a classification? Sirwiñakuy’s world of surreal thoughts, complexities, and poetic visions do all come together to explore ugly and beautiful realities that relate to identity construction, gender politics, sadomasochism, globalization, and a slew of other human conditions. And, Hesketh’s skillful blurring, this balance between the palpable and the elusive is laudable. Was the joke on me? Was I just a little too gung-ho to chuck this baby doll out with the bathwater? Still I was still irked.
Despite my prejudices, it cannot be denied that the film moves languidly, indulging us with poetic quotidian (not at all antithetical!) moments mainstream audiences would call pretentious. The lighting, the shadows and light, dare us to peer harder into the dark, look harder, find the boogey man, and then realize, like, oh shit, the bogey man is our own fears, obsessions, hang-ups, and our often stagnant, self-righteous relationships with power and gender representations. Yes, Sirwiñakuy is one of those special films that polarize almost immediately, kinda like John Cage, borsht, or Birkenstocks.
Tits ‘n Ass
Common consensus around the movie watching experience is that it typically involves pleasure, right? However, how this pleasure is aroused and manifests has long been the subject of theoretical inquiry around the question of whether movies express the societal rumblings extracted from the collective unconscious or if they actually create those rumblings. Many people I’ve talked to have placed emphasis on the amount of nudity, (Anouk’s mainly) we see in the film. Some have described the movie as almost pornographic; this can be problematic as the definition (or consensus) of pornography must be addressed first, no? It can be agreed, I think, that certain techniques are mainstays in mainstream sexually pornographic films, such as, extreme close ups on genital organs, the centerpiece or “money shot” of male ejaculation, quivering gelatinous nubile flesh, and accompanying sounds which are evidential of pleasure. Sirwiñakuy does not include these elements. The film does, however, most notably, in Bahktinian terms, disrupt the “normalcy” of cinematic representations of the female nude. As a result, the viewer experience subverts phallocentric norms. I am thinking here in particular of the scene in which Anouk masturbates; it is particularly powerful, deftly revealing more about you, the viewer, your expectations, your assumptions, your blind spots, than the actual imagery.
And what kind of post-viewing comportment might the film instigate? The violence depicted in the spankings and the reversal of the pieta scene in which Luis, rose by rose, draws blood from Anouk certainly has both literal and figurative meanings. The violence here takes the public’s appetite for extremity, despite themselves. Interestingly enough, both horror and war films, and, I would add, sadomasochist erotica, draw on the very same psychodynamics of spectacle of fear which draw in audience participation and demand complicity, if not identification with a side, usually that of the professed victim. Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others speculates about the audience/viewer participation and the frustration of immobility that graphically violent tableaus inspire:
the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look. Those with the stomach to look are playing a role authorized by many glorious depictions of suffering. Torment, a canonical subject in art, is often represented in painting as a spectacle…the implication is: no, it cannot be stopped—and the mingling of inattentive with attentive onlookers underscores this. (42)
While Sontag divides up the viewer’s reception of violent imagery into two camps of either spectators or cowards, Hesketh seems to anticipate or even rely on the viewer to be both spectator and coward. For guilt, which seems an obvious offshoot of the viewing experience, is the paramount element for being drawn in. That complicity in the act of viewing is enough to grant identification with the tormented as spectacle slowly, seductively reveals the salvation that resides in sufferance, fighting off the natural inclination to look away.
It must be noted that Sirwiñakuy should practically be guaranteed a rapt audience, for one only has to look at any art history book to acknowledge that depictions of suffering are admired in the western world. Susan Sontag writes about the juncture at which art, image and renderings of human suffering, coincide in our “society of spectacle,” and also explains what kinds of depicted sufferings are traditionally socially sanctioned. It is more than apparent that Hesketh must have gotten inspiration from certain Caravaggio paintings in establishing the lighting and framing of many a tableau. True enough, a classical aesthetic influence is apparent and taps into a collective Judeo-Christian informed relationship with the iconography of pain. If you are Buddhist, I really don’t know what to say.
The pleasure principle
As I question my own initial rejection of the films feminist connotations, I think of cyberfeminism and experiences as an instructor of composition back in New York. A strong proponent of complicating the typical compositional experience in first year writing courses I often draw on feminist compositional practices to complicate my courses. This led me to cyberfeminism with its emphasis on the exploration of the internet’s potential for connectivity and expression through a prism that includes and places priority on feminine modes of discourse to create heterarchical spaces in which students can create analyze and inspect entrenched, but not necessarily, static relationships of power.
Cyberfeminist composition has often been defined as another way of rewriting/ representing identity, both destroying and creating, like Shiva (whom Kali stands over), a new inclusive, chaotic order of communication, one that plays with notions of logic using cybertechnology as a tool to reveal and subvert the seemingly established order of the “matrix.” Similarly, a film like Sirwiñakuy proves to be a most promising “space” to challenge phallocentric notions of expression. This manifests in a variety of ways. The tension, or my initial perceived lack of it, between Anouk and Luis, is a strong force throughout the film, challenging the viewer to reexamine and reimagine the landscape of gender and sexual agency, and how they recursively manifest. Hesketh highlights that agency can come in some pretty unsuspecting packages, utilizing feminine modes of discourse in ways that are disturbing, compelling, and, yes, sexy. In the tradition of French feminists like Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, Hesketh makes a radical proposition, experimenting with fragmentation, disjuncture, nuance, always insistent not to revolve around a single core, but to open wide into galaxies of meaning that subvert patriarchal modes of rhetoric.
Judging from the critical reception from the Bolivian press I have read thus far, it seems the general consensus is that these critics do not know what to do with the film. I can’t say I blame them. But I sure as hell can judge them. Instead of confronting the dislocation, some critics have chosen to dismiss the film for rather flimsy yet problematic reasons using ad hominom arguments against the film and its director. The criticisms are even, in fact, much more disturbing than the film might ever be. One critic asks cheekily if this might be the worst Bolivian film ever, while at the same time, questioning its place, or its right, to even be called a Bolivian film. This begs the question of what exactly Bolivian cinema is. And who decides? In a country where transculturalism and the rhetoric of identity construction and self-definition are the basis for social change, the stenches of the politics of exclusion in the cinematic realm seem almost acceptable, if not normalized.
I don’t know what is more offensive—that some Bolivian critics simply cannot close their gaping mouths in disbelief that a woman could create a misogynist film– a distinct right reserved for who? Only males? Right. Interestingly enough, last I checked, the mainstream Bolivian press didn’t seem so perturbed or self -righteous when homosexuals were recently publically insulted by a leading government official, or when the current Bolivian government nauseatingly courted the possibility of hosting the Miss Universe contest. Not to beat a dead llama here, but let’s not pretend that gender, sexual rights, or feminisms are at the top of the press’ agenda here. Another confusing note: a bulk of the critical reception seems obsessed with Jac Avila. Kind of like Teen Beat writers high on 87 oz cherry super Slurpees. Jac, Jac, Jac…Marcia Marcia, Marcia.
One critic also “mistakenly” refers to one of the film’s two producers, and protagonist, Jac Avila, as the director–as the man behind the curtain really– blatantly ignoring Hesketh, while in the same heated breath accusing the film of being misogynist. Moreover, there appears to be a consistent questioning of Hesketh as auteur by some who insinuate (explicitly) that she is simply some beard for Avila. This makes me wonder when was the last time “critics” dared suggest that a male Bolivian director was in fact a cover for his female leading actor. Frankly, most disturbing here is that this kind of baseless rhetoric diverts attention away from the deeper questions the film inspires. The film has also been criticized by some in the press for not being erotic at all. However, the film was never labeled as such by the director; rather, it was the very same press who touted it as such. Now, it is these same cry babies who whine of the films failure to live up to their own categorization. Huh?
I wanted to read more of the reviews, but my achy stomach could only take so much. I don’t know what I was more in need of, an Alka Seltzer or an extra strength Tylenol pm. Truth is, I wasn’t just physically ill; frankly, I was shocked. And, this ain’t no easy feat, y’all; 2002 was last time I recall being shocked. It was 8:55 am, and my Times Square bound 7 train was pulling out of Roosevelt. Then, what appeared to be a thirty-something, pasty, yuppie on his way to work, suddenly dropped down, doggie style on all fours. It was a sight to behold. Flat ass, protruding in the air, he proceeded to then, ever-so-sloooowly, lick, slurp, and twirl his tongue (in a manner I thought only best reserved for a Mister Softee cone,) his way up the subway cars closed doors. That shocked me. However, this tableau was, at least, memorable, and still often makes for a good ole, crowd pleasing,’ gross out, New York City story to use at parties. By comparison, these reviews I forced myself to read, if socially shared, have no entertainment value and do not up my cool factor at all.
Let’s take, for example, the July 26th review of Sirwiñakuy by Ricardo Bajo H. of Periodico Digital Educacion Radiofonica de Bolivia. Beware though… if you happen to visit the online periodical, don’t be fooled by his frat boy smiling photograph. His smile hides pain, great pain. Unbeknownst to many, his secret hurt can only be lessened by abusing all punctuation in sight, especially quotation marks and parentheses, who have obviously tag- team jumped his momma and baby sis. “Ricardo” places quotes around any ole word he fancies, disregarding all maxims. He is a bad, bad boy. And, make no mistake; you will fear the wrath of “Ricardo” done wrong. Did Jac Avila break his heart, fuck his wife, and/or pillage his village? You bet your logical fallacies he did. And, it’s payback time!! Seriously though, what happened to the review? Bajo’s manifesto thumbs its nose at all literary convention, defies genre, leaps over journalistic ethics, and reads like a to-do list, vocabulary booster sheet, and dear diary entry cobbled together (on a Monday) for Tuesday night’s Open Mike Poetry Slam. Call me “crazy” but just because a writer was used and abused by the ugly stick, grammar, punctuation and logic (as sad as this may be) this does not justify the journalistic equivalent of a crack induced drive-by. Still, I was torn with what to do exactly with this piece. An exegesis of his text really didn’t seem fair, just cruel. A parody? Too time consuming. Dance Your Ass Off was about to come on in ten minutes…
Blurring lines aplenty and subverting expectations, Sirwiñakuy’s proposal does indeed unsettle. The film does ask a lot in its recombinant thesis that in the act of questioning, redefining, and dismantling assumptions, the circles do not always close. Personally, the deeper social value, in the aftermath of the film, is that there is always more un-educating to do in regards to the cinematic gaze regarding gender roles, sexuality, identity construction, and the body. It is now more than a month or more after my initial viewing at the Cinemateca. (By the way, my ass still hasn’t recovered from what they call seats over there.) I have just had a huge cup of coffee with two heaping lumps of refined white sugar. I am now even considering giving Harry Potter a chance at some point. But you can forget about chuño. I still hate chuño.